Prologue

PROLOGUE

“…3And God said ‘Let there be light,’ for he knew there would be no dominion without it, and there was light. 4God saw that the light was good and shunned it, exiling it wholly to the corners and crevices of the world. 5Separating it from the darkness which he reveled in, he was loath to destroy any part of his creation, and left the small light to his Son and Opposite, who knew it was good, and revelled in it in turn. 6Despite this unworthy inheritance, the Opposite was wholly mindful to his father, and thanked him humbly for his gift.”

-Excerpt from a text commonly called “The Black Heavens Scriptures” or “Bibliothece of the Stars”, a popular text among starborne Fateless. This heavily edited edition of the Bible is credited to “Him Beloved by God”, an unidentified Fateless and prophet who, from margin writings and apocrypha, seems to have been a bishop or priest that had experienced some of the memories of the Demiurge. Afterwards, he proceeded to change certain sections of the Bible to be more in line with what he had seen, and the information he was able to collate from other such seers. Of specific note are the creation stories in Genesis, which were the among the most dramatically changed books compared to the originals.

Year of the Son One Thousand and Fifty Six

Glowing stars and domes popped in the dark, whirling and glimmering against an immutable and distant backdrop of white pinpricks against black. The shapes were little more than a momentary, phosphorus shine in Alfred’s eyes, blinking in and out of existence, leaving burnt-in imprints in his vision.

There were more permanent objects, too, lit by the intermittent light. Most prominent were the scorched, spent remnants of blast-weapons and heavenships, ripped out of the world by design or by force. Those made up the majority of the debris on the battlefield, most drifting outwards away from the conflict. Chunks of ragged meat were between them, the bloodied bits of Fateless like him, men and women and their animals. All visible were some combination of killed, dismembered, torn, and burnt. What had been parted were such that Alfred might not have recognized what they were, if it weren’t for the occasionally whole bodies also littering the area, and the scraps of worn cloth that clung to the pieces. There were oblong, craggly rocks strewn haphazardly throughout- what Alfred thought might be bits of Dwarrow. Floating lazily were a few more exotic body parts, the occasional unidentifiable strand, stalk, glob or limb within an voidborne smattering of whatever blood served the creature that sourced them- Alfred could see droplets and voidborne pools of blue, crimson, dirty-water brown.

All these items were moving at different speeds, forming a chaotic visual stew, a perpetually expanding, thinning gob of stuff. The space was thick enough with things that occasionally they would collide, bumping one another gently if they were slow, wrenching themselves apart against each other at speed. Liquids splashed against each other occasionally, shattering into mixed droplets heading in random directions. Parts of the mass were lit from random angles, at different times, as weapons fire from below wove in and out of it or exploded within it.

It was fearful turmoil in a single vista.

The shifting carnage distracted from all else in the space before the Ceolsige, which was Alfred’s own ship. She was a sturdy, unwieldy thing of oak, iron, and thick voidglass, angular and blocky, roughly three equal, segmented sections in a line from front to back.

A world of uninteresting tan ground and clear, thin skies hung pendulous to the right of the endless expanse. It was dry and cloudless, a glowing, organic yellow pattern etched into its dark half. The light of inhabitation. Exploitation, at least. The planet spanned to the starboard side of the *Ceolsige*, close, large and heavy, steady in the speckled blackness that encircled it. A colony of the Dwarrow, maybe, or perhaps only a mining operation. Smooth and nearly featureless, its beige shell didn’t look like the planets Alfred had seen that Fateless could inhabit, with blue replete through their aery shell and watery seas. It looked dead, or dying, or inanimate entirely.

Heavenships chased each other like hawks and angry wasps; they were drab, burning, and intent on blooding bloodless prey. Swimming through darkness, they were at once fishlike, sinuous, and efficient. Every minute motion seemed to result in a narrow, slinking dodge or a graceful swoop into position from which an attack might be launched. It made the battle seem almost preplanned, predestined, as if they were only performing an energetic dance with a tempo measured in blood and flesh, stone and fire. They killed like they were frenzied things.

Alfred could see the dim, crimson glows of lightshafts mirrored on their targets, which shone red in return before armor and heat-shields cracked away. Then, inevitably, metal warped, bursting in great rents and spewing specks into the ebon surroundings, many writhing like dark maggots, cold-boiling, choking. The wriggling things would be animals inside the ships and Fateless aboard them, now drowning ignobly on the oppressive nothing outside their metal bubbles. It was a slow, implacable demise that made the explosives, to Alfred, seem like the kinder death. A few of the dark, wriggling things wobbled visually, shimmering for just a moment before going still like the rest- the lucky few that were Pushers, of the lucky few that were Wicca. They had pulled some air out with them, and played dead. It was fruitless. The side with the lightshafts, which Alfred suspected were the source of the dead Dwarrow floating about, were not in the mood to leave survivors or to take prisoners. Gouts of flame erupted throughout the void, before puffing out forever. The Dwarfen lightshafts only needed to be trained on the survivors for an instant before they burst into flames within their desperate shells of borrowed air, which immediately dispersed.

Where one side seemed to be using lightshafts, the other- fellow Fateless, he thought- was using explosives. There were less of them than the other, but they were the more bombastic and noticeable by far. Less effective, probably. It was a simple matter, as far as Alfred could reason. The Dwarrow-fired lightshafts were a more precise weapon, more or less impossible to miss with if aimed competently, with no travel time or finicky propulsion. Damage was being done with the explosives, and when they landed they cleft ships apart mortally and spectacularly- there would be no wriggling specks coming from a ship that had been hit like that- but they missed. They missed often enough that it seemed as if there were two or three explosive bolts that missed for every one that hit, spiralling out uselessly into space, or going off too far from their target to be effective. The explosives could be swerved, their targeting confused, or hit with lightshafts before they reached their prey. In stark contrast, the only real defense against the instance and constance of the lightshafts was spinning erratically, preventing them from firing too long on one section of the hull. Among other unpleasantries, this made it hard to get a shot off. Other than that, the only option was simply not being one of the ships that was aimed at. Ballistae were used more because of their reliability and ease of maintenance than any virtues they held themselves.

The Fateless were fighting what seemed to be an impossible, uphill battle, disadvantaged and harrowed against poor odds.

Alfred felt bad about it, felt a flash of severe anger at his powerlessness. Still, he could do nothing but draw the Schir- the see-through- from the tiny glass sphere he held into his heavenship, his crew and cargo, his passengers. The only power he had over the situation was whether the people on his ship lived or died. Fervently, he prayed to all the saints he knew, to the Holy Son and to the Virgin herself that they would all survive this awful day, and he worked his magic. The sphere had been a trifling bauble, something interesting he’d bought to help him along with his studies in Dealing. Now, his life depended on it… and not only his. He opened his hand and looked down at the thing in a worry, as if it might have disappeared since he last looked at it. His eyes registered a familiar clear ball, as perfectly smooth and impeccable as anything made by Fateless. It was perhaps twice as wide as a finger. Surrounding it were his hands, clear as glass in their own right, and further the still-transparent shell of the ship, and then the pitch-black of the everpresent void.

He closed his hands. He could see right through them. Alfred trembled a bit in fear and anger, hoping fervently that a stray shot didn’t hit his ship. Chances were poor for that- they were at least lucky enough that they were on the edge of the fight, far enough that nobody had seemed to see them before Alfred had thought to make them invisible- but not nearly as close to impossible as Alfred would like.

There was a tiredness in his bones. The result of his Dealing. He was good at it, or at least was lucky enough to have been born with much of whatever stuff was needed to perform it. Regardless, such a large item was hard to pump energy into constantly and evenly, an exercise in control and power both. There was settling, sleepy exhaustion from it, adding weight to his joints, his eyelids. There was a tenseness to his limbs and back, and as the minutes went by, it was implacably marching towards becoming an ache.

Searching for something more to do, Alfred clawed at his mind, at his memory of the star-charts he had only weeks ago bought from Tenebrae, trying to recall anything about war even close to here, some clue to help him puzzle together the reason for this chaos… and came up with nothing. It was useless, anyways- knowing facts about the battle or its origin wouldn’t help with the problem- namely, that they were already here.

The Black and the battle were visible around him, dark as asphalt as the Schir in the ship kept them all as clear as glass. Only Alfred’s head, and some of the heads of his Pushers, remained visible, so that they could see to work their magic. Even that much made him nervous that someone would find them. Alfred and his crew were doing fine- if they had not quite weathered a situation this dire before, they had come closer than many. His living cargo, the people he ferried on this ship, were less lucky. He could scent the acrid smell of spew from some of them, blinded from invisibility and unbelievably terrified at the prospect of an unseeing death. Though, Alfred thought, his eye caught by the ripped and bloody meat outside, maybe it’s better that they can’t see. Less strong was the smell of piss, from children, cowards, or animals; together the two smells made a horrendous one. They would need much cleaning, if they survived this. The plants would still smell faintly of vomit for ages afterwards.

Alfred could just barely recognize the outline of two people at the front of the group, a man and the child he was travelling with. His own child? A relative? Alfred had never asked. They were clutching at each other for comfort within fear, huffing and murmuring and shifting their feet like spooked horses. The passengers had come stumbling into the common quarters after Alfred had turned everything clear, shifting themselves past the shrubs and stunted trees. He’d had to offer explanations probably a dozen times, at this point.

What was happening was that they had sailed right into an active battle. No, that wasn’t true- he had. His passengers rightfully had no part in this. A damaged ship somewhat close to them spiralled dazedly and tried to limp away from the fight, off-balance and wavering from the destruction of their sailrooms or the death of some of the Pushers manning them. Unable to spin or swoop effectively, it reddened tortuously, finally erupting in a great gout of light. A lightshaft had caught something while there was still enough air in the ship for flame- a munitions room, Alfred supposed, from the size of the explosion.

His reserves were depleting, a constant drain kept up by his constant effort. He wasn’t the only Wicca on the ship, not even the only Dealer, but he was by far the most skilled at his talent. Even with his effort, they were only- could only ever be- as clear as glass. To move the ship might give out a shifting glimmer where there should have been only darkness and stars, inviting the wrath of one of the warring parties- to say nothing of the colorful event that was one of the Tunnelers opening the Hole they would need to pass through to leave- and he wanted no part of that whatsoever. It was probably already possible for somebody to see his ship for the warping of the stars in the black, if they looked hard enough, perhaps even to see the heads of him and his crew. He only had to hope that they didn’t. He only had to hope that his reserves could last him far enough past the end of the battle that it would end, and he could leave.

Alfred continued praying. The battle kept waging.

Droplets of sweat continually crept down his forehead and cheeks, his neck, his worry-creased brow. He’d had no idea there was so much sweat in him, nor that he could have ever felt as scared as he was feeling. Some of him itched with the wet, fearful slickness of it, but Alfred found himself unable to tear his hands from the glass sphere to scratch himself. It felt as if it were a rope above a chasm and he would fall without it. Fear was evident in the stances of the other passengers. Alfred could hardly bear it. Wanting to calm down the children at least- if these were their last moments, he wanted them to be of a nature other than this horrid, pissing fear- he attempted to soften his grip on the little glass lifeline. He straightened his back- not that anybody noticed- and spoke. They couldn’t see him, but they could hear him.

“It’s winding down,” Alfred said, quieter and with more of a waver in his voice than he might have liked. He licked his sweat-lined lips to the taste of salt, looking back at the fuzzy, transparent outlines of the people behind him, and cleared his throat. “It’s winding down,” clearly this time, followed by “I think it’s almost over.”

If pushed for an encompassing description, Alfred would have said they were a collection of merchants and travellers, at least some of them likely having had to defend themselves in the past. Not as far away from warriors or sailors as most, but not close enough for Alfred’s liking, here and now. Their ship had only two weapons suitable for combat in the Black: a lightshaft that only halfway worked, and one hoyaw-ballista, with five bolts for it. Neither were particularly well-maintained. None of his crew were well-trained in the use of them, but then he hadn’t made a habit of travelling through dangerous areas. Up until now, of course.

There were scattered handweapons among the crowd, perhaps about one for every two adults. Could be thirty weapons, but was probably closer to twenty. Not useful, unless the enemy was going to board them, and there were more worries than personal combat if that was the case- he was unsure if any of his Pushers were skilled enough to keep the air inside of his ship, if that happened. Alfred was usually just enough on the cusp of being desperate for money that he didn’t, as a matter of course, ask to check the cargo he ferried. Perhaps someone was smuggling a lightshaft or ballista aboard that could be installed in an emergency… No. Not a helpful line of thought. There wasn’t the time or cover needed to install a ballista, and probably not enough lightning in his ship for a second lightshaft.

However, Saint Peter, Saint Christopher, and perhaps even the Virgin herself seemed merciful this day. The battle wound down slowly; the clusters of shots grew farther and farther apart as ships stopped finding each other, and groups from the one were now chasing after the routed remnants of the other. There were less ships on the losing side, now, and the side with the lightshafts was free to focus their fire on the fleeing. Most burst like overripe blisters far before any preparations for a Hole could be made, though he could see the shimmering colours that indicated the attempts and very occasional successes. It was hard to tell, being as the scene was still fairly messy, but Alfred thought perhaps five ships from the ballista-side made it out of what had originally been near fifty. They weren’t quite out of the thick yet, but they were close. Alfred simply clutched his clear bauble and stared intently at the Black outside, the dark expanse pregnant with stars and a world, with warring ships and cooling corpses. His gaze moved behind him, to the passengers and crew of the Ceolsige, shivering and cowering just like he was, but altogether different- they had no power over the situation. He did.

The battle was over, now- a grievous and costly victory by the forces with the Dwarrow and lightshafts on their side, who maintained about half of the force they seemed to have started with. Perhaps thirty heavenships remained. Alfred and his passengers were still okay. Alfred uttered a shaky sigh, so relieved he could’ve pissed. He looked back at the Pushers and the ship’s two Tunnelers, heads still visible above glassy bodies, nodding his head to indicate that they should get back to their stations. They nodded back, and four of them left for the hallways leading towards the back of the ship, towards the sail-rooms. There, waiting for them, would be sheets of suspended canvas attached to the floor, ceiling, and walls of the four large sail-rooms. The lead Pusher checked in with the others before nodding to Alfred, indicating their magic had seeped into the sails and they were ready to move, and that the Tunnelers were ready too. People still weren’t really speaking, held back by some foolish and instinctive consideration that they might be heard by somebody through a half-foot of wood, another half-foot of seamless iron, and about a half-mile of nothingness.

Alfred attempted to break this most mundane of spells in the most mundane of ways, and spoke once more, turning fully to face his crew and passengers.

“We’ll be leaving soon. Putting all of it behind us.”

He wasn’t speaking to anybody in particular. The people he was facing seemed just a little less terrified. He heard a scant few whispers among the passengers, and a smile graced his lips. It was a thin and weak thing, but there was true relief in it.

All of a sudden, fresh terror crept back into the faces of his crew, as a bright light shone on their ship. They yelped, and sensing something was wrong, worry and fear seeped through the crowd of passengers like floodwater. Alfred almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and his mind balked, freezing at the situation for the first few seconds. It was all the time the ship before them needed. Alfred had a brief glance of a hawklike outline composed of dark, swooping lines before there was a sudden, blinding light. A tremendous crack sounded off, like a tree screaming before it fell. He put his hand up to shield his eyes. He felt himself be moved, swept off his feet. The sound of wind wooshed by his ears, followed by an oppressive and total silence. There was only time for a single, half-formed thought- I guess we weren’t that lucky, after all- before a bright and terrible pain seemed to encompass Alfred in his entirety.

Then, only darkness.